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Providence Talks expands after promising preliminary data

Despite criticism, second phase to launch in the spring

Providence Talks, an initiative aimed at closing the “word gap” between high- and low-income children before kindergarten, plans to expand its operations this spring as its pilot phase wraps up, said Rob Horowitz, a spokesperson for the program.

The program was launched by former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras after it won the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayor’s Challenge in 2013.

As part of the expansion, the researchers will randomly choose families to participate in the program in order to “generate causal inference from our findings on the impact of the initiative,” wrote Kenneth Wong, professor of education and chair of the department, in an email to The Herald. Ultimately, the researchers hope to determine if the program “contributes to kindergarten readiness,” he added.

The expansion will also focus on tracking word fluency, word recognition and engagement between parent and child, Wong wrote. “Providence Talks has the potential to narrow the achievement gap and has national implications, so it is very important that we complete the randomized evaluation study in the next four years,” he added.

While Brown undergraduates have not been deeply involved in research for the initiative, undergraduate research assistants have worked on tasks such as “literature searches on studies related to early childhood and social support initiatives.”

Pre-kindergarten participants in the program are outfitted with LENA electronic devices, which record their daily speech. Their speech samples are then analyzed by a computer program “that estimates the number of words that are being spoken,” said James Morgan, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, who is not involved in the program.

The children’s families are also visited twice a month by caseworkers, who review the analyzed data with them and teach them strategies for improving conversations and interactions with their children, the New Yorker reported earlier this month.

Initial results from the pilot program showed improvement in participating children’s word counts, Horowitz said. Word counts increased by around 50 percent, while conversational turns — switches between parent and child while talking — increased by around 30 percent, The Herald previously reported.

Now the program plans to expand to between 1500 and 2000 families over the next few years, Horowitz said.

“I think we have a good plan for how to get there,” he said, adding that the project’s “goal is to make (Providence Talks) accessible to any family in Providence who wants to participate.”

But the program has not been without its critics.

Morgan said the gap between high- and low-income children is not just in the quantity of words, but also in the quality of the words to which they are exposed.

He pointed to the research of psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, whose work formed the intellectual foundation for Providence Talks. Hart and Risley showed that the amount of encouragement a child receives also has an impact on intellectual development. “They found that in rich families encouragement was much more likely, whereas in the poorest families, it’s actually the opposite,” Morgan said.

“Simply increasing quantity of speech won’t necessarily lead to changes in quality of interaction,” he added.

Providence Talks does not measure word quality because of the American Civil Liberties Union’s concerns with recording conversations, according to Morgan.

“Once (the) computer program is finished, the speech sample is erased. It’s never heard by human ears, and information about the quality of interactions, of the topics of discussion, the variety of words being used — all of that is lost,” Morgan said.

It is imperative to remain cognizant of the initiative’s long-term vision of creating a rich language environment for young children, said Dana Suskind, associate professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medical Center and a member of the Advisory Board for Providence Talks.

It is important not only to get “great LENA results,” but also to ensure that there is positive change in the children’s lives, Suskind said. “You need to look more closely at what needs to be done, how else can we support these families and these children.”

“There’s no doubt that the science shows that a rich early language environment is one of the key catalysts for children’s brain growth,” she said.


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